I’m taking this class on the idea of “worship” in all its dimensions, and we read a few pieces that gave me an entirely new framework to understand the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, and how God works in those stories. And no, I’m not exaggerating.
In Genesis 15, God makes a covenant with Abraham, and it’s a little weird, mainly because it’s entirely on God. He promises that he will be Abraham’s God. He promises he will give him many descendants. He promises to make those descendants a blessing to the world. And, most importantly, he takes all of the potential negative consequences of breaking the covenant on Himself. In essence, he makes this covenant with Himself on Abraham’s behalf.
What’s Abraham’s part in this whole thing? “He believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness”, the text says (and he’s supposed to circumcise his kids as a visible mark of his belief). This is one of the earliest and clearest depictions of the unconditional grace-driven nature of God’s relationship to humanity and the world–a relationship that would later be called “The Gospel”. In fact, the Apostle Paul would look at this moment in Genesis and say:
Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.
Most teachers I’ve sat under over the years have appeared to think that, through the biblical story, God shifts the primary ways he relates to his people. Each one of these shifts is expressed through a series of progressive Covenants with them. The assumption has been that each covenant more or less “replaces” the previous one.
After this whole “Abrahamic Covenant” gets established, the next “covenant” event in the Bible is the whole Moses/Sinai/Ten Commandments/Golden Calf thing. In our popular understanding, this seems to be when God got angry and started demanding an impossible “works-based” relationship with his people. In this view, Jesus then becomes the “clean up mission” in response to Israel’s failure in obeying this “Mosaic Covenant”.
But in my class readings this week, I read several things that questioned this. What if the Mosaic Covenant at Sinai wasn’t a “replacement” or even a “progression” of what happened with Abraham? What if this Mosaic thing was more like a Covenant renewal ceremony where God was offering a new way for his people in that particular place, at that particular time, to express the relationship they had had with Yahweh for generations already? John Stek, in an article called “Covenant Overload” says this beautifully (please read this):
Over all the OT documents looms Sinai. And yet, what transpired there between Yahweh and Israel created nothing essentially new. Yahweh already was Israel’s God and Israel was his people. That relationship had been created by everything Yahweh had done for Israel through his initiatives with [Abraham] and his acts of saving and blessing in Israel’s own history. And there were covenants already in place to reinforce the commitments made between the two parties along the way: God’s unconditional…covenant [and the people’s response] represented by circumcision. At Sinai a new instrument for administering that relationship was put in place. That is all. The importance of the Sinai event must not be underrated. But neither should its occasion and purpose be misconstrued. At Sinai the kingdom of God, already long in gestation, finally came to birth and took its place on the stage of human history.
Sue Rozeboom summarizes this well: “The gift, the identity, the relationship is granted first [with Abraham], and then the instruction for how to live into it [with Moses].”
This is why when the covenant is renewed later on, there is no mention of Law, or even Sinai. This is why throughout the rest of the Scriptures, when God reiterates his faithfulness, he calls himself the God is Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the God of Moses. What happened at Sinai was a particular way of practically administering the covenant of grace established with Abraham.
The big idea here, then, is that from the beginning, God’s way of relating to his people and this world has been one of grace. All of those laws and commandments were simply practical ways and expectations (albeit fully culturally conditioned ones) that God’s People could respond to God’s gracious fulfilling of those promises.
Jesus didn’t come “merely” as a response to Israel’s disobedience to the Sinai Covenant, but rather as the fullness, completion, and fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, which was (and in a sense, still is) the main presiding Covenant under which all of God’s work in the world has been done–not the Mosaic one.
The Promise was for Abraham and his many children, not Moses and his. (Right arm, left arm, right leg, left leg….okay, I’ll stop.)
What this means for us today
In my mind, at least, this has profound implications for so much of my life with God and reading of the Scriptures, but it is especially helpful for Sunday worship gatherings. Particularly for me, this fosters a greater sense of the communion of the saints, both past and present. What we are doing in the weekly gathering is not a break from Sinai, but rather–in a sense–a recapitulation of it.
If we see Moses giving a new way of practically “administering” the Abrahamic Covenant, then we do the same thing on Sundays. We receive God’s word, present our idols, hear the law, and receive absolution. Remember, Moses did not just receive the Law and Commandments at Sinai, but also instructions for the tabernacle. As the nature of these Covenants exemplify, whenever God gives Law, he assumes we’re going to muck it up and he offers a way towards restoration and atonement.
We participate in a different–and yet more similar than I previously thought–“administration” of this Abrahamic Covenant that has been fulfilled and made New in Christ. Even more beautifully, this is what all of God’s people have done at all of their gatherings throughout redemptive history: re-play, re-enact, re-present, and re-member the gracious promises of God and our dedication to live in light of it.
And this did not begin with Jesus, or even the Prophets. But it began with an old Babylonian wandering through the desert, when the People of God still numbered one.
[image credit: Mark Rothko, “No. 9 White and Black on Wine”]